By Nicholas Birns, Senior Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), faculty at the New School, and co-editor of The Contemporary Spanish American Novel (Bloomsbury) and Larry Birns, Executive Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA)
President Obama’s upcoming trip to Panama for the Summit of The Americas on April 10-11, 2015, offers a considerable opportunity as well as a significant danger. The opportunity could come from a desire to further establish the lineaments of a new U.S. approach to Latin America— one that is more multilateral and expresses American values through an acceptance of pluralism and political diversity rather than cultivate the paradigm of imperiously imposing U.S. animus will on a recalcitrant set of partners. The danger is that Washington’s now unrestricted animus against the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela will be seen as being worthy of undermining this new agenda and invoking U.S. policy back to former, totally ossified posture which was heightened by the White House’s March 9 executive order, targeting specific individuals associated with the Venezuelan government for sanctions, and employing hyperbolic rhetoric, casting Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”i
The surprising opening to Havana announced last December was thought to heavily revolutionize U.S. policy in the region; it certainly has at least provided an opening repositioning the long-tattered and heavily frayed image of the U.S. among its American neighbors. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson had clarified that she wished the preliminary work for the reopening of U.S. and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington to be completed and touched up by the time the Summit begins. Thus, if the path had been followed, the U.S. would have had a showplace for its revitalized approach to an issue bound to be prominently visible at the conclave’s inauguration. The Obama administration, though, now faces the problem of pressures coming from the right, particularly from those who feel Cuba’s outreach, which had been a force for capitulation for the government of Raül Castro, attended by a muffling of social concerns over such persistent questions as human rights and transparency. This is no doubt regarding the origin of the sentiments, starting from that of the President himself at a December 17 press conference where he announced Washington’s restoration of ties with Cuba, but not the full-blown relaxation; the Summit would now be able to stress democracy and adherence to human rights, but in addition to one thing to another. This was compounded by additional rhetoric to be found in the March 9 executive order by the White House, which stated “We are committed to advancing respect for human rights, safeguarding democratic institutions, and protecting the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela.”ii
There is legitimate need for a more earnest step-up for an advanced discussion of civil society and aforementioned long sought-after transparency in the Americas had been guaranteed, which will carry with it the additional diplomatic burden of covering territory where different personnel will have to negotiate in various ways and will not in and of itself be able to provoke a dramatic dispute among the participants at the summit. Unfortunately this agenda threatens to be politicized in a negative way by the growing tension between the U.S. and the Maduro government. Caracas has recently made several declarative statements against the U.S. diplomatic presence in Venezuela. On March 2, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez announced that the U.S. had been ordered to slash its Embassy staff in Caracas to only seventeen people. The previous weekend, Maduro had claimed to detain no less than several American spies, though these have neither been named for verified. It is also certainly possible to overreact to the grave Venezuelan moves, or to interpret them disproportionately. The Obama administration’s executive order of March 9 certainly qualifies as such a disproportionate response. This need not have been the inevitable countermove to the Maduro government’s demands. As the Venezuelan embassy in Washington only has seventeen people, it is asking the U.S. to trim back its presence proportionately might be vexatious, or annoying, but it should not be incendiary.
The U.S. might protest that as a great power it needs to have a larger set of aides for its economic, militarily, philanthropic, and development agenda, and that it needs to set a wider bore to discharge its diplomatic and economic weaponry. However, Maduro clearly thinks that some among the U.S. Embassy staff are CIA officers, who he profoundly suspects of fomenting a so-called “golpe azul,” or a “blue coup,” against him by his own military officers. Maduro has asserted that on several occasions he had planned to present evidence of a suspected U.S. role behind the purported golpe at the Panama summit.
In the decade and a half since the ascent of the late Hugo Chávez to power in Venezuela, there have been many moments of high or low theater and embarrassing rodomontade in the troubled U.S.-Venezuelan relationship. This coming April, the Summit of the Americas in Panama must be seen by the White House as a serious venue,. By overly prosecuting a zealous anti-Caracas agenda, the U.S. is in danger of squandering the small amount of good will that it has accumulated as a result of the long-desired but tactically unexpected, December opening from Cuba’s aperture. There is no doubt that the U.S., in spite of reality, no doubt sees Cuba and Venezuela as barely separate cases.
Yet Cuba is no longer on the table for Washington to appeal to a Miami audience, nor is the Venezuelan exile population large enough to be taken seriously as a political force in the near future. And the U.S., with no existing economic ties because of long-established embargo, desires a consequential piece of the coming profits. Venezuela, with whom the U.S. has always had sensible diplomatic and political ties, houses the single most densely populated oil reserve and is already a part of the contemporary world economy. The country exerts a degree of power due to its oil supply despite fluctuation of market prices. Furthermore, even though there exists a decided and, in some sectors of the society, popular opposition to the Maduro regime, both Chávez and now Maduro have, unlike the Castro brothers, been affirmed repeatedly by one variant democratic process or another. The current Venezuelan leaders have a broadly accepted political legitimacy as freely elected representatives of their people that the Castro brothers never had.
Even those Latin Americans—and there are many—who take a bemused or even skeptical view of the Chávez-Maduro regimen, do not in any form want Washington to challenge them or complain that it at times acts like a bully or an ideological monitor. All Latin Americans are hardly in accordance with social policies or aspire towards Caracas-like political model. They wish that any change in Venezuela evolves organically and not be triggered as a result of U.S. pressure. Even those countries that have been critical of Venezuela do not wish to be seen as engaging in subversion or to be actively involved in intrudes to delegate or weaken Maduro. When Raúl Sendic, the Vice President of Uruguay, stated that the U.S. in his view was not trying to bring about the fall of the Venezuelan government, Maduro called Sendic “a coward.”iii Yet, soon after, Julio Chirino, the Ambassador of Venezuela to Uruguay, met with Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa, who pronounced ties between Montevideo and Caracas to be fundamentally positive.iv The Obama administration threatens to come into the Panama summit having driven potentially ambivalent Latin American public opinion rather than into the arms of its opponent. The other national representatives at the summit will be, in different degrees, sympathetic or unsympathetic to any Caracas players in the dispute. The bulk of regional sympathy no longer desires any kind of coup against Venezuela, or even the equivocal posture towards a potential “golpe azul.” Lamentably, the U.S. maintains its position with hopes to emulate the events that transpired in Honduras June 2009.
Although the belligerent U.S. posture towards Cuba throughout the Cold War, was justified by the Soviet threat, afterwards its maintenance of the embargo was, later, largely the province of exile groups principally lodged in the politically important state of Florida. With policy toward Latin America now having unshackled itself from the millstone of the Cuban embargo, it would be sad if a new Venezuelan bogeyman were to assume its place. The Summit of the Americas in Panama City should advance genuine shared policy goals and take advantage of the opportunity generated by the Cuban opening, not simply replay outdated and tired antagonistic scenarios.
Latin America wants to talk about the environment, global and regional financial policy, the maintenance of fair prices for resources, and help in making the necessary transition to modern societies without falling under a new wave of financial imperialism fostered by neoliberal forces. The question is whether the U.S. will shove these apt subjects off the petty proscenium of a contrived crusade against Venezuela.
By Nicholas Birns, Senior Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), faculty at the New School, and co-editor of The Contemporary Spanish American Novel (Bloomsbury) and Larry Birns, Executive Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).
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